“A New Transcendentalism” 3/4/2018


Spirit of Life and Love, Justice and Peace,

We are gathered four days after students at
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida,
returned to their school.
Not to their classes, but to their school.
Not for a full day, but for a half day.
And that’s how it will be for a while at that school.
Their Principal wrote: “There is no need for backpacks.
Come ready to start the healing process
For them, Lent began with “two weeks of nightmares,
funerals, flashbacks, vigils and grief counseling”* –
and also the “tweets, essays, and television appearances
—equal parts fierce determination and fervent agony—
… of … the[ir] ‘Never Again’ movement.”**
Teachers and students across the country
have acted in solidarity, walking out, writing politicians.
These children inspired that response,
but they did not create it
any more than they invited the shooter.
The tools for their “movement” were available.
The strategies for it were tested and taught to them.
And the role that police have found in Parkland
stands in contrast to forces in Ferguson
or Baton Rouge.
And we gathered here are invited, called into covenant,
to ponder why this moment looks the way it does.

Come what may, O Spirit of Life,

May we recall, or find out,
how this moment was prepared, and by whom.
May we recall how its tools and techniques were tested.
May we support all children
not only to “be the change they want to see”
but also to see the change we all want to be.
May we teach them how to join a movement,
how to build one together with neighbors
and strangers.
And may we find ways to help all children
reclaim their nest.

In the Spirit, by the Spirit, with the Spirit giving power, so may it be. Amen.

* Jack Healy, The New York Times
** Alia Wong, The Atlantic


READING: from “Transcendental Etude” by Adrienne Rich

This August evening I’ve been driving
over backroads fringed with queen anne’s lace
my car startling young deer in meadows – one
gave a hoarse intake of her breath and all
four fawns sprang after her
into the dark maples.
Three months from today they’ll be fair game
for the hit-and-run hunters, glorying
in a weekend’s destructive power,
triggers fingered by drunken gunmen, sometimes
so inept as to leave the shattered animal
stunned in her blood. But this evening deep in summer the deer are still alive and free,
nibbling apples from early-laden boughs
so weighted, so englobed
with already yellowing fruit
they seem eternal …
in the clear-tuned, cricket throbbing air.

Later I stood in the dooryard,
my nerves singing the immense
fragility of all this sweetness,
this green world already sentimentalized, photographed, advertised to death. Yet, it persists
stubbornly beyond the fake Vermont
of antique barnboards glazed into discothèques, artificial snow, the sick Vermont of children
conceived in apathy, grown to winters
of rotgut violence,
poverty gnashing its teeth like a blind cat at their lives. Still, it persists. Turning off onto a dirt road
from the raw cuts bulldozed through a quiet village
for the tourist run to Canada,
I’ve sat on a stone fence above a great, soft, sloping field of musing heifers, a farmstead
slanting its planes calmly in the calm light,
a dead elm raising bleached arms
above a green so dense with life,
minute, momentary life – slugs, moles, pheasants, gnats, spiders, moths, hummingbirds, groundhogs, butterflies – a lifetime is too narrow
to understand it all, beginning with the huge
rockshelves that underlie all that life.


SERMON: “A New Transcendentalism”

Vermont is second only to Maine in its proportion of white population – just over 94% white. From there, Adrienne Rich describes:

all this sweetness,
this green world already
sentimentalized, photographed, advertised to death –
the fake Vermont
of antique barnboards glazed into discothèques,
artificial snow,
the sick Vermont of children
conceived in apathy,
grown to winters of rotgut violence,
poverty gnashing its teeth
like a blind cat at their lives –
the hit-and-run hunters,
glorying in a weekend’s destructive power –
raw cuts bulldozed through a quiet village
for the tourist run to Canada.

And quietly, defiantly, eternally:

a farmstead in the calm light,
a great, soft, sloping field of musing heifers,
a dead elm raising bleached arms
above a green so dense with life
the summer deer alive and free
queen anne’s lace fringing the backroads;
a lifetime is too narrow to understand it all,
beginning with the huge rockshelves
that underlie all that life.

A poet’s sensitivity captures the discrepancy between the aims of society and the aims of life.

And last week, a reporter observed Parkland students’ return to school:

“On Wednesday, traffic around the school slowed to a crawl as [a daughter] and her mother drew close. They passed heavily armed police officers and television cameras. Students walked through a colonnade of police officers from nearby cities and teachers from their old middle and elementary schools who waved signs of support.

‘Welcome back, welcome back,’ one sheriff’s deputy said.

‘I feel like I’m on an episode of C.S.I.,’ [the daughter] said.

‘How is this our school?’ her mother asked. ‘How is this happening?’ [Her] voice trembled. ‘This is unbelievable. It’s making me sad.’

‘Mom, please don’t cry.’”

I’ll confess a harsh feeling: I want her to cry. And not just for Parkland, but for Miami Gardens, where Trayvon Martin lived, and for Sanford, where George Zimmerman lived. I want her to cry for Jacksonville, where Jordan Davis lived; for Detroit, where Renisha McBride lived; for Staten Island, where Eric Garner lived; for Ferguson, where Michael Brown lived; for Chicago, where Laquan McDonald lived; for New York, where Akai Gurley lived; for Cleveland, where Tamir Rice lived; for Baltimore, where Freddie Gray lived; for Minneapolis, where Jamar Clark and Philando Castile lived; for Baton Rouge, where Alton Sterling lived; and for Dallas’s five policemen, and for John Crawford, and Sandra Bland, and VonDerrit Myers and Antonio Martin; for Bruce Kelley Jr. and Joseph Mann and Abdirahman Abdi and Paul O’Neal and Korryn Gaines and Sylville Smith and Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott and Alfred Olango and Deborah Danner and Joques Clemmons and all those – known and unknown – whose deaths are like raw cuts bulldozed through our communities, hit-and-run events of misguided glory and destructive power.

I know she will cry – probably has cried – for Columbine and Santee and Sandy Hook. And I don’t doubt her compassion. What I want is for her compassion – for all of our compassion – to cross the divide of de facto segregation that we all continue to participate in, in ways we have not all noticed.

She looked at heavily armed police guarding her daughter’s school and said:

“How is this our school? How is this happening?”

And I want her to ask:

“Why are these police so heavily armed?
And why were they militarized in Ferguson?”

From their parents’ living rooms, Parkland students are planning a massive demonstration in Washington, D.C.: the “March for Our Lives.” They already have “a sophisticated website with a mission statement and merchandise for sale—and, like the historic Women’s March last January, it is inspiring satellite protests” across the country and the world. It has drawn large donations from Oprah Winfrey and George Clooney. Donations to their GoFundMe campaign continue to rise – already totaling over $2 million – and they continue to increase their funding goal.

Journalist Alia Wong, in an article in The Atlantic magazine, notes the contrast with the Black Lives Matter movement. Black Lives Matter, she writes, has “raised awareness [about] deeply ingrained social injustices and spawned a network of young activists crusading to combat police brutality and racial violence, [but] it didn’t receive the same kind of sustained mainstream-media attention” that Parkland students are getting. Coverage of Black Lives Matter “has been a mix of positive and negative reports.” Wong observed that “the concerns of middle-class and affluent students, particularly those who are white, are ‘more likely to be interpreted as universal’ whereas the concerns of their lower-income peers of color are more likely to be regarded as relevant to and true of a small percentage of kids.”

I want us all to reflect on, why?

She reports that, demographically, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School roughly mirrors the public school population nationally: 56% white, 21% Hispanic, and 12% black. She suggests that the equally affluent Columbine community did not produce activism at this level because the shooting there was not perceived as part of a trend, and that Sandy Hook didn’t because the children there were too young to make their voices heard. She notices that the national mood is especially receptive to activism since the 2016 election, and says that Parkland students may be helped by having President Trump as a foil.

What she misses, I think, is that it took a President Trump to motivate that three quarters of the public who are at best half-attentive to public issues.

Journalist Stephen Collinson of CNN noticed that Parkland students “swiftly pivoted from grief to a campaign for change that shocked politicians from their normal rituals after mass shootings. … [They] were aged 11 or 12 during [the] Sandy Hook [shooting] and their childhoods have been punctuated by mass shootings that seem to be happening more and more often.” And he celebrates the Parkland students, saying: “America can still gestate the idealism and renewal that has been the lifeblood of its democracy.”

But he erroneously reports that “they have established a template for their generation and offered a playbook for how victims of future mass shootings … can leverage their suffering for political effect.” The template was already established; the playbook was given to them. And, probably, they know that.

It is evident that these kids have “supportive relationships, optimism, and good problem-solving skills” of the kind that “help people ‘bend but not break’ after traumatizing experiences.” And it is known that some people not only bounce back from trauma, they grow from it.

Posttraumatic growth – a theory developed by forensic psychiatrists Drs. Lawrence Calhoun and Richard Tedeschi of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte – explains that people who struggle with the negative effects of trauma can ultimately experience positive growth through their ability to appreciate life, see new possibilities, understand personal strengths, form closer relationships and deepen spirituality.

All the things, in short, that a church aims to offer its members.

Something nobody ever told me about being a 50-something is that you begin to feel in your everyday life and interactions with people – particularly younger people – how, and how much, society’s ideas and assumptions have changed since your own formative years. And it’s making me think more about how our children are being formed.

The Parkland students are in the trailing cohort of the generation that historians William Strauss and Neil Howe nicknamed “the Millennials.” Columnist Jennifer Rubin wrote in The Washington Post about how Millennials – now replacing Baby Boomers as our largest living adult generation – “are [as a population] more diverse, read more books than … their parents, and do not pine for the pre-globalized economy.” They are strongly anti-Trump, express more liberal views, and affiliate more with the Democratic Party. They are also less religious, less likely to be married (although wedding industry professionals report having to adjust to their non-traditional tastes), and more skeptical of institutions. At the same time, they are more likely to say that government should help the needy and ensure universal healthcare coverage, even if it means running up the debt. They are more concerned about income inequality than their elders. Most of them believe that global warming is real. Doubtful about “American exceptionalism,” they are skeptical about our country’s exercise of global leadership. More than half of them say that Islam does not produce more violence than other religions, and most support immigration and free trade because it’s a good thing that our country is open to others. Their growing political weight as a component of our democracy means their views will shape future solutions to our society’s problems.

Are they the New Transcendentalists?
No. The New Transcendentalists – potentially – are the Baby Boomers and GenXers.

According to Life Course Associates, the organization founded by Strauss and Howe, Millennials today are people between the ages of 14 and 36. GenXers are between 37 and 57 – and those of you in your mid-30s need to judge from your own experience whether you think you fit the description of a Millennial or not. Baby Boomers are between 58 and 75.

Children 13 and under, Neil Howe has started to call “Homelanders” – we might call them “post-Katrina kids,” born since 2005.

The gist of Strauss and Howe’s generations theory is that patterns of social change create conditions that form generations in certain ways. Social change happens in an alternating pattern of exploration and consolidation. The exploration phase consists of what Strauss and Howe call an “Awakening” followed by an “Unraveling.” The consolidation phase is a “Crisis” which resolves into a “High.”

The 19th-century Transcendentalists, like the Baby Boomers, were born during a “High” – the post-Missouri-Compromise, Monroe Doctrine era of economic growth for them, the post-World-War-Two, Marshall Plan boom years for us. They shaped the “Awakening” of American culture and the many reform movements of the mid-19th century, just as the Baby Boom generation shaped the “Consciousness Revolution” (as Howe calls it) of the 1960s and 1970s.

GenXers, like the Gilded Age generation, were born into an “Awakening” and watched it unravel: the “Consciousness Revolution” for us; for the Gilded Age generation, the era of reforms – abolitionism, utopian socialism, temperance, the Seneca Falls movement for women’s rights, and so on.

Millennials, like the generation that fought World War Two, were born into a period of “Unraveling”: the period of World War One and the Twenties for them, the era of the “Culture Wars” and 9/11 for our young Millennials. As the “Greatest Generation” created the world order of the United Nations, trade agreements, the IMF and World Bank, and international corporations, so will the Millennials fashion the order to come out of our current chaos. If they have the chance.

The Transcendentalists’ children, according to Strauss and Howe’s interpretation of history, didn’t have the chance. Instead of a prolonged “Crisis” – like the “Greatest” generation’s 17-year-long combination of the Great Depression and World War Two – the “Crisis” that followed the Transcendentalists’ exploration phase was compressed into a 5-year Civil War. The generation who built the Progressive Era had to build a “High” out of the war’s messy outcome and unresolved conflicts. Their efforts did not cross the divisions in society, but institutionalized them. We got an “Awakening” that looked like Jim Crow, and the business efficiency movement, and eugenics, and immigration restrictions, and American overseas colonies, and the missionary movement; and an “Unraveling” that involved a World War whose peace we did not commit to, and Prohibition, and organized crime, and growing wealth inequality. That cycle of exploration left much to be undone.

The work began with the “Greatest” generation’s civil rights movement: desegregation of the military, then of schools, then finally of all public accommodations, plus guarantees for voting rights. We still work at correcting the narrative that Rosa Parks was just a woman with tired feet who miraculously inspired a bus boycott. The truth is, Rosa Parks went to the Highlander Folk School in New Market, Tennessee, east of Knoxville, and was trained in how to make social change. What she did was no accident, and also she was not the first to do it. She, and her trainers at Highlander, belonged to that same “Greatest” generation that we have learned to identify with World War Two veterans.

Since then, because of Dr. William Barber’s writings, their Civil Rights movement has come to be called “The Second Reconstruction,” and today’s Poor People’s Campaign is part of “The Third Reconstruction” that Dr. Barber is helping to lead. Millennials are shaping this new “High” as we speak.

They have the chance, because – by Howe’s lights – we are now 10 years into our current “Crisis.” Beginning with the Great Recession of 2008, this “Crisis” is characterized by the polarization of the Obama and Trump years. Throughout this period, the various parts and levels of our government have increasingly worked against each other. Given another five or ten years to work their way faithfully through it, the Millennials will prepare a fruitful new order for their children to rebel against.

The New Transcendentalists – we Boomers and GenXers who have come to feel how much society has changed since our formative years – have the chance the old Transcendentalists never had: to lend our aged wisdom to a project built on a firm and healthy resolution of the latest consolidation of social change.

May we 40-to-70-somethings invest in that hopeful future, and may we find ways for our church nurture the ability of our teens-to-30-somethings to appreciate life, see new possibilities, understand their personal strengths, form closer relationships, deepen their spirituality, and make a better world for the generation of the children in our church school, and for all children. So may it be. Amen.


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